Imagine, for a moment, the end of the Kenyon Review. The presses stop and begin to cool; the editors disperse, moving on to different pursuits; and Finn House, where they used to gather, sprouts cobwebs across its elegant Gothic woodwork, the yellow siding dulling to an unused, jaundiced gray. Eulogies would be published, echoing what Martha Foley wrote in the foreword to the 1971 “The Best American Short Stories” at the start of the only hiatus in the publication’s 79-year history: “The Kenyon Review — one of the most important magazines this country has ever seen or will ever see — is no more.” The biggest rendering, though, will go unseen: an invisible hole torn into the cloth of modern American letters, an absence that no other publication seems ready to fill.

This is, thankfully, nothing more than mere fantasy — or, better put, the stuff of nightmares. As editor-in-chief David Lynn ’76 will tell you readily, the Kenyon Review today “is in a kind of healthy state that it’s never had before.” But with the 80th anniversary of the Review approaching next year, one question stands out: How has the Kenyon Review managed to do what few of its contemporaries could — not just survive the years, but stave off irrelevancy and flourish as a leading voice in the ever-changing literary landscape?

In 1788, lexicographer Noah Webster wrote with unhappy foresight, “The expectation of failure is connected with the very name of magazine.” The names of the Kenyon Review’s defunct predecessors haunt literary history: The Dial, Hound & Horn, Criterion. The Kenyon Review is not exempt from this fate entirely, either; between 1969 and 1979, it ceased publication. “From the very beginning,” said Kenyon College historian Thomas Stamp ’73, “funding was a concern.”

Today those fears are indeed the stuff of history. After once again skirting disaster in the early 1990s, the Kenyon Review has clawed itself up from $300,000 annual deficits to an endowment today of $10 million. It has a robust influence not just locally, but internationally, attracting students from around the world to its Young Writers and Summer Writing workshops. “The Kenyon Review is not just a literary magazine,” emphasized its director of programs, Anna Duke Reach. “It’s a literary arts organization.”

If only Roberta Teale Swartz Chalmers could see it now. Described as the “real” founder of the Review by its first editor, John Crowe Ransom, Chalmers was the wife of Kenyon College’s 13th president, Gordon Keith Chalmers, and the one who had noticed the absence of an American literary review that was of comparable quality to the British quarterlies across the pond. Roberta pushed her husband, when he was elected president of Kenyon in 1937, to remedy this oversight and, at the suggestion of poet Robert Frost, Gordon Chalmers sought Ransom as the Review’s first editor. A Vanderbilt English professor who cut his editorial teeth at The Fugitive, Ransom was sold by Chalmers to the trustees of Kenyon College with the threat that a “quarterly stands or falls on the ability of its editor,” a statement that would be proven countless times throughout the Review’s history.

At its launch in 1939, subscriptions to the Kenyon Review cost $2 a year, and the publication had a subscriber base of just 600. While that number would grow to around 2,000 by 1946, Ransom’s efforts to launch the fledgling magazine were so desperate that he even gifted his mother a subscription for Christmas, Marian Janssen notes in her essential history of the publication, “The Kenyon Review: 1939-1970.”

It did not take long before the Review began to get noticed, though: The first issue featured work by Ford Madox Ford and contained criticism of Thomas Wolfe, W.H. Auden and Franz Kafka. “The new quarterly,” one reviewer wrote after its debut, “rates the sort of serious attention given the Yale Review, Southern Review, and other university periodicals aimed at the discriminating in the national audience.”

Over the next two decades, Ransom set a theme for the Review that continues to be honored to this day: the cultivation of new voices. “From the very beginning of the Kenyon Review, there were women writers represented there,” said Stamp. “Someone might not expect that from a magazine coming from what was then an all-male college, and with an all-male staff.”

Ransom, though, was always looking for opportunities to boost budding talents, regardless of gender — and particularly those that had not yet been published in print. In 1941, two dozen pages of the Review were devoted to his “Younger Poets” series, which debuted Ruth Herschberger in print, along with Elizabeth Lee and Howard Nemerov. As Ransom put it, it was “much better to find younger writers than to call on the old tired ones, and in fact there is no use in a journal that doesn’t have a strong set of younger contributors.” It was a fledgling of an idea that would come to define the Kenyon Review throughout its history; the Younger Poets’ great-
grandchildren can be seen in today’s Young Writers Workshop and Fellowship programs.

The subsequent war years were hard on the Review, raising “a possibility that we have to discontinue,” Ransom fretted. At Louisiana State University (LSU), another influential magazine, The Southern Review, was also foundering, and after a failed merger, the Kenyon Review absorbed the Southern’s subscriber list and was paid $600 by LSU to complete its subscriptions. The Kenyon Review just barely was able to scrape by with those funds, and a triumphant Ransom told New York’s Herald Tribune — which had jumped the gun on reporting the Review’s shuttering — that “the report of our demise is ‘exaggerated,’” echoing Mark Twain.

After more than two decades working to secure the Kenyon Review’s standing as one of the premier English language publications, Ransom handed the reins over to his successor, Robie Macauley ’41, in 1959, telling him, “Now I can get a good night’s sleep for the first time in years.” Macauley had chosen to work for the Kenyon Review over a possible career with the Central Intelligence Agency, after serving with the Counterintelligence Corps during the war. There is even some suggestion that he actually continued to work for the CIA while editing the Kenyon Review: “We don’t have any actual proof but there’s a lot of suggestion that he was involved,” Stamp said, before adding: “The CIA was working with lots of different publications to get them into the Eastern Bloc especially in the hope that they had influence.”

"Now I can get a good night’s sleep for the first time in years."

John Crowe Ransom, handing the reins over to his successor, Robie Macauley ’41

Under Macauley’s editorship, the Review would publish Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Graves and early work by Sylvia Plath. Circulation rose to 6,000, although professors in Gambier who felt that the Kenyon Review was a little too independent from the school suggested it “could have been edited in Timbuktu for all the connection to Kenyon College.” Macauley would eventually move on to edit Playboy in 1967.

The subsequent collapse of the Kenyon Review came not with a bang, but a whimper. First, there was a cultural shift: “The tide changed,” Travis Kurowski, the co-editor of “Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century,” told the Bulletin. Suddenly there was a demand for “less criticism, less reviews and more actual literature.”

Lynn put it more bluntly: “Really, the issue was the College was broke and on the verge of going out of business.” And under editor George Lanning ’52, the Review continued to hemorrhage money until 1970, when it was finally announced: “Publication has been suspended, effective with this issue.”

During this hiatus, Bloomberg News co-founder Matthew Winkler ’77, at the suggestion of his mother, applied to Kenyon. “My mother was all too familiar with the Kenyon Review when her son was thinking about going to college, so she said, ‘You should go there,’” Winkler said. “So at least I applied, for the sake of making her happy, and Kenyon accepted first. Of course, I get there and, lo and behold, there is no Kenyon Review.” But attending college along with a young David Lynn, Winkler recalled “the ghosts of the Kenyon Review were very much throughout the College.”

By the late 1970s, two English faculty members, Ronald Sharp and Frederick Turner, decided to resurrect the Review, and called the product the “New Series” to strike a divide with its historic reputation. A pessimistic Janssen offered a prediction for the revived Kenyon Review in her 1990 critical history, writing “In our age of chips, computers, and artificial intelligence, one is hard pressed to find indications that in the foreseeable future, literary reviews are again to become as powerful as they once were.”

In the early 1990s, the situation certainly looked grim. There was that $300,000-a-year deficit, for one. Lynn had recently returned to Kenyon College as a professor, and the Review’s Board of Trustees agreed to let him have a go at righting the finances as the Kenyon Review’s editor.

At the time, Winkler was getting Bloomberg News up and running, so when Lynn asked him to be on the board, “I tried to come up with every excuse I could why I couldn’t possibly do what he wanted, and then I thought: Okay, he’s my friend, and I couldn’t say no to my friend,” Winkler said.

That wasn’t the end of it, though: Winkler found himself under similar pressure several years later when David Banks, the initial chair of the Board of Trustees, told him: “You’re going to succeed me.” Winkler again protested. “And David Banks says to me, ‘Haven’t you ever heard the Beach Boys song?’” Winkler recalled. “And I’m looking at him like he must be nuts and I said to him, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said: ‘Be true to your school.’ It was the corniest thing he could have said.”

But it worked. Winkler became the chair of the Kenyon Review Board of Trustees, helping to launch a gala benefit dinner in New York City, for the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, which honors the lifetime achievement of some of the world’s greatest writers — and helps to bolster the finances of the Review.

Coming out of the 1990s, Lynn faced the diffcult task of dragging the Kenyon Review into the 21st century and blowing off some of the layers of dust that had accumulated over the years. “I’ve spent most of my career here, 20, 25 years as editor of the Review, trying to make the Review really matter now,” Lynn said. “Not simply be an heir to a tradition of yesteryear.”

What does it mean for a review to “really matter now,” after all? It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lynn’s goal is the most ambitious moment in the Kenyon Review’s history since Roberta Teale Swartz Chalmers pressured her husband to launch the publication in 1937. By author Kurowski’s estimate, there are some 3,000 literary magazines in 2018, all jostling to “matter” in a rapidly evolving literary landscape.

“The Kenyon Review has been a leading literary magazine in adapting to the times, for digital, audio, and also for events and new voices,” Kurowski explained. He added that while many literary magazines come out of universities these days, “a lot of them are these thick doorstops of text that maybe get subscribed to but not really read or picked up at conferences or are a CV line. But I don’t think people see the Kenyon Review like that.”

Managing editor Abigail Wadsworth Serfass is at the forefront of making the Review matter
in the 21st century by finding those defining new voices. “We’re in a position right now where I
think some authors do see us as these old, white, male gatekeepers,” she reflected. “Which really isn’t the case.” She was quick to add that “we’re making our best effort to diversify and to make sure we’re completely accessible, and that everyone wants to submit to us and be published in our pages.” In fact, a recent editors’ retreat focused in part on the questions of diversity and inclusivity at the Review.

Lynn is perhaps the most uncomfortably aware of the magazine’s stereotype due to his position. “We’re really working very, very hard,” he said, “and if you actually look at the people we’re publishing now and the people who attend our programs, I think the diversity is as good as anyone in the country. But there is sometimes a perception that I’m one of the so-called gatekeepers, by which people mean I filter out writers of color and only let people that I know into our pages. That’s not true.”

The Kenyon Review still very much has a reputation for kickstarting writers’ careers, too. Mary Terrier’s story, “He Comes to Feed the Horses,” was pulled out of the slush pile by interns: “Since then, I’ve been contacted by a number of agents who read my work in the Kenyon Review, and I recently signed with one,” she said. Cintia Santana, who had two of her poems published in the September/October 2017 issue, said “editors from other magazines also wrote to solicit additional work after seeing my work in the Kenyon Review.”

But the Kenyon Review is also much bigger than “those six print magazines that come to your door every two months,” Serfass pointed out. “We’re a hive of activity every summer and we host around 600 writers, both young and old.”

"We’re a hive of activity every summer and we host around 600 writers, both young and old."

Abigail Wadsworth Serfass, managing editor

These Kenyon Review-linked programs range from the “life-changing” Young Writers Workshop for 16- to 18-year olds; to the Kenyon Review Associates Program for undergraduate students interested in literary publishing; to Kenyon Review Fellowships, a two-year program for post-MFA writers who are invited to campus both to create new work and to teach.

On the Kenyon Review’s website, you’ll find “a binding promise to the future,” in which Lynn and the Board of Trustees pledge to identify “new ways to excite readers and support writers.” This emphasis on the accessibility of art is most noticeable in the offerings of KROnline, which operates separately from the print version. “One of the great things about the online Review is they tend to get a lot of readers,” said Adam Clay, one of the Kenyon Review’s book review editors. Reach said: “It’s free because we just want people to read it. It’s our gift.”

Kirsten Reach ’08, fiction editor for the Kenyon Review and Anna Duke Reach’s daughter, illustrated the publication’s forward-thinking mindset by noting the importance of Kenyon’s Young Writers program, and how it is imperative to intercept teenagers who might be discouraged from pursuing what many call an unrealistic career as a writer. “I think we just have to find kids at that moment and make sure that they don’t stop writing, and make sure that they take their own work seriously so that they’re committing time to it, so that we get to read their writing 10 and 20 and 30 years later,” Reach said.

From his position on the board, Winkler agreed, saying that the Review is “making literature, poetry, the short story, exciting, dynamic to people who are going to lead us in literary pursuits long after we’re fertilizer for the daffodils.”

Eighty years on, there is ample reason to look back on the Kenyon Review’s past. If you talk to the staff, though, they are looking the other way. “It’s important to me to stress to the world that it’s what we’re doing now that matters,” said Lynn. “It may support the tradition of the old days, but I don’t want every story to begin with ‘in 1938, Gordon Keith Chalmers brought John Crowe Ransom from Vanderbilt to Gambier.’ That’s all true, that’s all important, but that’s not where I want to begin anymore.”

And so let us begin with what we would lose: After all, there is more than just a leading literary magazine at stake. There is an entire future of writers — writers who might still be in diapers, writers who are perhaps only just applying to an MFA program, or declaring a major in English — who will one day contribute to the Kenyon Review community.

Because if there is one thing that hasn’t changed since 1939, it’s that “just like music is a balm for your soul, so is literature,” said Winkler. “And that’s our place. That’s why it’s necessary. Because everybody needs a balm for their soul.”

"Just like music is a balm for your soul, so is literature."

Matthew Winkler ’77, Bloomberg News co-founder

Jeva Lange is a staff writer at The Week. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Daily News, The Awl and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Bennington College and lives in Queens, New York.

Who's Who and What's What: The Modern Kenyon Review

Updated every two weeks, KROnline publishes work separately from the print journal. “When we started [KROnline] back in 2008, that was really one of the early online journals,” said managing editor Abigail Wadsworth Serfass. “I feel like that has gained its own following and its own community.” Editor David Lynn explained: “One of my ambitions in the years to come is that we … take greater advantage of what the web is capable of. I think we’ve just scratched the surface there.”

Kenyon Review Associates
The Kenyon Review Associates program is a unique opportunity for Kenyon undergraduates to get involved in publishing. The approximately 85 students who are accepted into the program work with Kenyon Review staff on projects directly related to the magazine as well as literary events in surrounding Knox County, including a local community-reading event. Associates do everything from reading manuscripts to organizing readings, and they benefit from special literary, cultural and professional opportunities throughout the year.

Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement (KRALA)
The KRALA honors careers of extraordinary literary achievement, recognizing writers whose influence and importance have shaped the American literary landscape. Proceeds from the benefit dinner support the Kenyon Review and help provide scholarships to the Review’s summer programs. KRALA winners include luminaries such as Colm Tóibín, Hilary Mantel, Ann Patchett, Elie Wiesel, Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and E. L. Doctorow ’52 H’76.

Kenyon Review Fellows
This two-year post-graduate residential fellowship on campus offers emerging literary voices an opportunity to develop as writers, teachers and editors. The Review welcomed its first fellows in 2012 with the goal of recognizing, publishing and supporting extraordinary authors in the early stages of their careers.

The Young Writers Workshop
For four weeks every summer, high school juniors and seniors flock to Kenyon College for this workshop, where they create everything from short stories to poems to songs and plays. “There’s three sessions a day and every session has a prompt that asks them to write,” explained the director of programs, Anna Duke Reach. “The big shock for them is they’re asked to write in notebooks.” The Review also hosted a science-writing workshop this summer for teens.

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